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Don’t be a real man, be a better man!

We all hold a model of masculinity, of what it means to be a man in today’s world in our heads. It didn’t get there because we chose it, it got there because we were told it again and again. The idea in your head is likely to be a blend of what the healthy version of masculinity, and the traditional, let’s call it ‘real man’, unhealthy one. This idea, or model, influences how you behave. You need to choose the one in your head because it influences your thoughts, words, deeds and decisions. You need to choose it, and keep reinforcing the positive. Not me, you.

 

10:30pm back in 2015 I was on my way back from London’s City airport after a big client meeting in Zurich. My cabby was John, a proper East Ender, late 40’s. He would have been a pro footballer if an injury hadn’t ruined it. We talked about our kids and what it means to be a dad.

The weekend before was his son’s 21st. He told me about a moment early in the evening when he was sitting with his dad. His son came up, gave him a hug and kiss, told him he loved him then bounded off to the bar.

John turned to his dad and said “Do you remember what you said to me when I was 8?”

Without a pause, the old man said “Yes, you went to hug me and I said ‘no son, men don’t hug, we shake hands’. Biggest mistake of my life.”

John’s dad wanted to have a rich, deep relationship with his son, but he let an idea he carries around in his head tell him otherwise.

You might dismiss this story, believing it won’t happen to you. You’d be wrong to though, because the ideas of masculinity are already in your head. They are already influencing what you think.

 

How it got there

Ideas subtly seep into your mind by sidestepping your critical faculties – you just don’t think about them. This is how advertising works. We don’t have the headspace to consciously, rationally question every message we receive. Very simple associations start to form in our minds when repeated again and again. Familiarity breeds favourability. Unfortunately, despite huge changes, the ‘real man’ idea is everywhere still, in the things we see, hear and experience.

LEGO are an enlightened brand, tackling gender bias in their products and investing in finding an alternative to the unsustainable plastic every brick is made of. Yet even they have fallen into the trap of the ‘real man’ stereotype.

The dad in the LEGO movies is so hell bent on control, he glues the LEGO together and doesn’t let his children play with his sets. He’s always at work, an angry figure who inspired the irate Lord Business. He happily gives all family duties to his wife.

Perhaps they didn’t fall into the trap and it was a conscious choice because it made the storytelling easier. But even if this is true, the fact that they can leverage the real man idea to make the story work better tells you a lot about how deep and widely accepted this idea is. For the film to work, the real man idea must already be part of the mental scaffolding of the audience’s mind. Something that gets built by repeatedly seeing, hearing or experiencing something so often that to help us better navigate the world, the idea becomes part of our model of the world. If it weren’t already part of our mental scaffolding, the idea would need to be explained for the story to make sense, so either way we end up at the same conclusion. The real man idea is so omnipresent not one of the hundreds of people involved in the making of the film called it out, or it’s so omnipresent that it’s already present in the minds of our little children.

Building your own idea

We’re talking about something ethereal here. An idea. It’s not something mechanical, where you see the whole and can discern the parts to replace, like your kid’s bike when you change the tyre or fit new brake pads. It’s more like making a great sauce, where you adjust seasoning and add acidity, constantly trying to balance as heat and time change it.

This metaphor makes it much easier to think about, showing us two clear ways to change it. One, pick a dimension, sweetness for the sauce, emotional awareness for the man, and consciously adjust it. Two, keep an eye on what else is going on with it, how the heat’s changing the flavour of the sauce, how what else you’re seeing, hearing and experiencing is changing how you think for the man.

One. Changing a dimension

Let’s start with an easy one. Control. We need to understand the false idea we will have inside us, then replace it with new one.

Society tells us that being a real man means being in control. A man’s home is his castle. The man of the house. The Alpha. These little phrases, so often heard and embodied by characters in film, TV, comedy, sitcoms, advertising and literature do us a disservice. They set us unrealistic, actually, impossible expectations. The core idea here, that men should be in control of the world around them is an impossibility. There are too many variables in life for you to control them all. You will fail.

When your expectations don’t meet up with reality, the gap gets filled with feelings of frustration, anger, failure, shame, blame and other nasty things like that. When you feel like that, it often comes out on those close to you, often your children.

Setting your expectations at the right level takes good quality information. When you do this, you close that gap of nastiness. I know this firsthand. Through all of my self-experimentation around patience, one of the top three things that made the biggest difference was learning about the ages and stages of child development. This information helped me set my expectations of my children at the right level. Which meant I got angry less.

When it comes to other people, especially children there is another dark side to this idea of a man being in control. It’s not your job to control them, especially your children. Your job is to raise these little people to be the best big people they can be. Forcing your children to behave in a certain way will of course get short term results, but it doesn’t help them learn for the long term. It only helps you in the moment. Let’s unpack that.

When you seek to control them, they will comply because you are bigger and stronger than them, because you provide the care, protection, food, shelter and clothing they need to survive. But each time you exert your control in a forceful, manly way, you damage the relationship between you and your child.

A relationship is a bond, a bond that will break when damaged enough and not repaired. When you slip into being the controlling dad, forcing your children to behave, you are ever so slowly breaking that bond. One severed thread at a time. When they’re old enough and no longer need your love, care, protection, food, shelter and clothing, what will keep them coming back to you?

This has to be set in age appropriate context. You do need to set clear boundaries with natural consequences so they learn. Giving free reign to a 5,7,9, 12 year old and expecting them to make the right choices for their nutritional intake, amount of sleep and volume of screen time is not helping them. Self-regulation is something they are still learning. Giving them the chance to experience a late night at a sleep over, or what it feels like to over indulge in cake at a special occasion once in a while is fine, because then they learn that the next day is hard, or they feel sick. We’re the ones in control of the responsibility, giving it to them in measures that stretch them ever so slightly each time helps them grow their abilities to take that responsibility. Giving it to them all at once, forever isn’t helping them. And of course, understanding the ages and stages of child development helps you quite a lot here.

I’ve learnt that parenting isn’t about absolute dos and don’ts to keep them safe, well behaved, or on track for stellar academic success. It’s about principled flexibility in service of giving them the experiences and nurture to learn about the world and themselves so they can have the most fulfilling life possible, whatever that might mean to them, in whatever the world is like in the future.

Now we’ve understood one dimension of this false, ‘real man’ idea, we can rewrite that dimension. To do this, we can either add a new idea in all together, which will take a lot of work, destroying and rebuilding that mental scaffolding, or we can adjust the existing idea that’s already there.

For control, adjustment seems to be the easiest play. The unhealthy idea is that a man is in control, which implicitly gets shifted into a healthier one.

For me Kipling’s poem If does a good job of memorably articulating what this shift in focus actually means. It might not for you, but you do need to choose something. Kipling works for me because instead of focusing on controlling the outsides, it’s about control of the insides.

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss[es];

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your [or our] turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on [to it] when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,

if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count [on you,] with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

A note on being physical as a means of control

I remember when my youngest was two. I was explaining why the window in his room didn’t fully open because if he fell, he’d either be in hospital with broken bones, or might die.

‘Batman will save me dad.’ He said, as if it was normal.

I already knew toddlers lived in a very different world to the rest of us, a fantastical world that blends reality with imagination. The glimpses they give you into it is one of the joys of parenting. That comment took my understanding to a new level though, I realised how dangerous it could be.

Physical restraining toddlers is sometimes necessary, like holding their hand to stop them running into the road, or pulling them back as they reach for a heavy pan on the stove, but as they get older things need to change. Between 3 and 6 children learn the difference between fantasy and reality. As they do, physical intervening becomes less necessary.

When you physically intervene with your child, you are teaching them it’s OK to grab someone, to physically manhandle (there we go again with that subtle idea) them without their consent, or when you’re angry or overwhelmed with emotion. This is a lesson we don’t want them to learn, but when they’re little is a necessity, so in effect as they grow we’re teaching them to unlearn it, something that will take time, lots of it. But the sooner you start teaching them, the deeper the lesson will be learned.

You shouldn’t expect that much before 6 though. It’s only at this age that children, in general, are able to really acknowledge another’s point of view. Before 6 they try, using what they’ve learnt, and what they say might convince you they’ve got it, but their brain isn’t developed enough to really understand it. Don’t be fooled by what’s going on at the surface, they are trying, they want to do the right thing, there’s no manipulation on their part, but they don’t have the hardware to be fully capable.

Remember your role. It’s to help them grow into the best person they can be. Getting involved and physically organising the world so they don’t have to struggle, mess up, take on tasks that are too advanced for them and learn what that’s like is not working towards this goal. At the same time, we need to meet them where they’re at.

Two. Being aware of what else is going in.

I’m a big hip-hop fan. British hip-hop is my preference, but I have a huge soft spot for 80’s and 90’s US tracks too. The problem is, most of these relentlessly repeat the ‘real man’ stereotype. Money, power, strength, control, dominance are the themes that run through them, so now I’m careful not to listen to too much of it, because I know that it is subtly reinforcing that old idea that’s crept into my brain.

Be careful of what you consume. That’s it. As you do this, you’ll notice you start consuming less ‘content’. This does another wonderful thing, it gives you more time to think. You have the space to reflect on your relationship with your partner and kids, about how they’re doing and how you’re helping them or not. You get better quality ideas because you have more space to mull. This is what Cal Newport talks about in his book Deep Work – if you stop bombarding your mind with so much stuff, it stops lying back in a state of overwhelm, and instead stands up and gets proactive. You feel more alive and connected. Try it. You won’t be disappointed, but you will be surprised at how much you defaulted to scrolling through social feeds and checking the news, instead of thinking about life.

Don’t be a real man, be a better man article.

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